Guest Post: NY Rangers Forwards, A Mix of Skill and System

jt miller nick holden
AP Photo/Rick Scuteri

The below post was written by Rob Luker. Rob used to write for Blueshirt Banter, but retired for a while. He sent me this and I was more than happy to post it. You should be following him on Twitter here. He is a great follow with tons of good hockey insight.

When Larry Brooks pointed out that the Rangers are expected to try to trade Nick Holden in his Tuesday, July 25th column, this got me texting and chatting with friends. Back on May 9th, fresh off the series loss to Ottawa, I tweeted the following:

So far, I believe Jeff Gorton has done a pretty solid job of doing just that to Alain Vigneault. While there are still risks of how AV could make poor personnel decisions, the roster is better constructed to limit those risks. If Holden is moved for any asset (even beyond a bottom six center), that takes away the potential for AV to use Holden in a larger-minute role, while subsequently opening up a slot for one of the prospects.

That all being said, many voices have covered both the overall offseason feelings and Vigneault’s potential deployment options, so what has prompted me to write for the first time in a long while? It was a comment from my St. Louis friend Kevin Lorenz. While discussing the team as a whole if Holden was moved, he said “it just seems like they all [NYR forwards] need to have a good year at the same time.”

Now, having lived in St. Louis from 2013 to 2016, I appreciate Kevin’s opinion on the Rangers because the Blues have been in an opposite situation than NYR has since 2013. Under AV, the Rangers have been a middle ten of the NHL team in terms of Corsi events (rates for and against, combined, meaning the Rangers played pretty fast paced hockey. They pushed the puck offensively, but were lapse defensively as well), but they were top ten in terms of scoring chance events. The percentages (CF%, SCF%, and xGF% – all at evens and regular season only) have swayed year to year depending on the roster, but the trading of scoring chances has been consistent.

The Blues, however, played prototypical Ken Hitchock hockey during this time. Bottom ten in the league when it came to Corsi and Scoring Chance events/60 (basically playing dull hockey with minimal offense either way) all while controlling the percentages mentioned above consistently. Finally, when it comes to goaltending, let’s just say that Blues fans are still praying that their own Lundqvist comes along eventually.

Usually when the term regression is brought out the infamous PDO acronym follows not too long after. And while shot and save percentages will always give us outlier examples every season, advances in other areas have given us a little more insight than just basic percentages. Right now (not that this is a revelation of any sort) I am a big fan of using expected goals when looking at individual player performances at a season level.

Specifically, I tend to start with “Surplus Goals,” which is nicely visualized on Cole Anderson’s Player Compare App. Surplus Goals simply equals actual individual Goals/60 (G/60) minus expected individual Goals/60 (ixG/60), all at even strength (note: the data does include playoff games for each year/player). Essentially, if a player is wildly positive or negative, it would be prudent to expect that the same performance is likely not to happen in 2017-18. Here’s how the whole league looks when plotted:

Some necessary stats on how this works (if stats aren’t your thing, you can skip this paragraph and go to the explanation below): For our sample size of 841 players in 2016-17 (x axis), the average is 0.23 surplus goals (y axis), while the median is -0.1 and 2.58 equals one standard deviation. 77.5% (652 players) fall within one standard deviation while 93.1% (783 players) fall within two deviations (-5.16 to 5.16). The top three at each end looks like the following (hint: fantasy hockey tip):

Basically, read this just like you would PDO: If it’s higher that means the player scored much more per 60 minutes than the expected goals model had him scoring, and vice versa. Naturally, any speculation needs to come with a healthy amount of context (Laine probably will continue to shoot pretty damn well for a while), but it’s nonetheless interesting. How does the updated NYR roster look?

Finally, the train of thought that started with moving Nick Holden can result in some analysis. Unsurprisingly, Michael Grabner is at the top of NYR’s Surplus Goals list after his 27 goal season (26 at even strength) and is also two standard deviations away from zero at 7.6. That is further evidence that he will likely not repeat last season’s success, as many have already stated.

Another expected name in Nick Holden follows Grabner, but then we get into some interesting names who most all think had good seasons. Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller, and Mika Zibanejad all fall outside of one standard deviation, meaning they are three of 115 NHL players on the positive side of Surplus Goals higher than 2.58. Basically that means that we have some reason to believe that they might regress next season. It’s not a guarantee, but there’s some evidence behind it.

Let’s look at each players individual expected and actual goal rates over their careers to see if they’re looking at a regression risk (and what that means for the NYR forward group). Note: anything near or above 1.0 ixG/60 or G/60 (the blue and red lines) is very much top end for the NHL.

Kreider has generally been on the rise since his 23 game rookie season in 2012-13. This past season, he saw a bump up in ice time while recording career highs in shooting percentage, total shot attempts (corsi), and shots on goal. Going into his age 26 season, it will be interesting to see if Kreider can continue the trend and crack 30 goals, or if he sees a slight bump back given that his expected goal rates have been slightly less than his actual goal rates.

Miller’s actual goal rate has been also on the rise since his rookie season while his individual expected rate has hovered around 0.5 consistently. His counting stats have gone up as his minutes have risen (career high in 2016-17), so the same question is essentially posed for him as it is Kreider when it comes to 2017-18.

Zibanejad has consistently outscored his expected rates since he started playing real forward minutes in the NHL. He masked a low-volume shooting year in 2014-15 with a higher shooting percentage, and it again happened to an extent last season. The defacto number one NYR center will be another one to watch.

For comparisons sake, here are Crosby and Ovechkin:

The theme here is that three important NYR forwards have consistently outscored their expected rates the past few seasons. From a statistics standpoint, this very much worries me as all players will have “down” years happen to them (hence Kevin’s original quote).

However that doesn’t mean they will all drop next year, as it could certainly come when they decline past 26/27, but it’s still possible. On the positive side, the coaching staff has presumably done well to have NYR consistently provide offense since 2013, as I mentioned above (given the scoring chance rates).

For Kreider, Miller, and Zibanejad, the outscoring of their expected rates (Kevin Hayes and Mats Zuccarello have also outscored their rates in all of their seasons) is most likely a combination of surrounding personnel and coaching system – a credit to Sather, Gorton, and the organization as a whole. This at least provides some (unquantifiable) relief from a statistical standpoint of regression with these forwards. Remember: Talent and systems matter in all this, and it’s almost impossible to quantify. This is an exercise in using what we have and attempting to predict what may happen next year.

As I alluded to above, I think the roster the Rangers have today is better off than the one they finished with on May 9th. Another natural center is preferred, but if Miller transitions and another winger steps up, in theory a healthy Rangers squad would have a top ten-ish offense, a top ten-ish defense, and Lundqvist. This is all contingent on coaching staff usage and injuries, plus the annual PDO roulette spin that is every NHL season.

What could possibly go wrong?

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22 thoughts on “Guest Post: NY Rangers Forwards, A Mix of Skill and System

  • Jul 31, 2017 at 6:26 am

    Thank you for this Dave and Rob, Rob is very good and we miss him at the Banter.

    The one word to describe the Rangers’ forwards is “if”:

    If Zib is truly a #1 center…
    If Kreider continues his progress…
    If Hayes can get his mojo back…
    If Miller can duplicate this past season…
    If Nash can come back after the injuries that clearly show a decline…
    If Grabner can come close to 2016-17, forget about duplicating…
    If Buch can take the next step…
    If Vesey doesn’t suffer a sophomore slump…
    If DD is REALLY a 3rd line C…
    If the better D makes the forwards better in of itself…
    If the PP gets a lot better because of Shatty…

    These are not made up questions, they are all legit unknowns coming into this season.

    As great as Ranger fans think the forward group is, once you break it down, there are no stars. None. They have to do it as a group. IF they get in the 240 goals for range then they are fine. But it’s not guaranteed.

    So, again, beating a dead horse, not buying out Staal to upgrade the center position was outright wrong. They would now need to get rid of a big salary to fit in a Bozak or any other center that carries at least a $4M cap hit. Not to mention getting rid of a bad player off the roster.

    People against the Staal buyout, then don’t whine when the Rangers don’t win the Cup because this guy is costing them games.

    • Jul 31, 2017 at 11:08 am

      Spot on analysis of upcoming season Richter…..
      Personally i would add one more ‘IF’….
      If AV can not lose guys on the bench, not overuse stall or holden, not underachieve in the playoffs again…..

      • Jul 31, 2017 at 6:49 pm

        Very true Rich, I decided not to even go there, meaning the coach, which adds even more questions, as you correctly pointed out.

    • Jul 31, 2017 at 1:04 pm

      I think Tony we have to watch how the seasons begins and see what AV does with the roster deployment. If Holden is still here which I believe he will not by October, but if so and he is playing the Holden-Staal pairing in critical minutes costing this team games again, Gorton has Ruff on the staff now who can take over the team on the fly.

      DeAngelo was not brought here to be in the press box and Bez cannot be lost to the KHL. Teams who would need a LHD and see some of their young defensive man are not ready, will call Gorton to potential swing a deal for Holden who is on a friendly 1.65MM AAV this year.

      • Jul 31, 2017 at 6:50 pm

        Agree on your post 100% Geno. On the mark.

        • Jul 31, 2017 at 10:29 pm

          Thanks Buddy. I think sometime towards the beginning or ending of training camp, Holden will be moved. For what? anyone guess at this point of time.

  • Jul 31, 2017 at 7:43 am

    Been hearing rumors on twitter that Vladimir Tkachyov will be at rangers camp this year but then will sign a one year deal in the KHL for next year. Anyone know if there’s any truth to this? I think the Rangers should offer him a contract, move Miller to the middle of the 3rd line and put him on his wing.


    I think that lineup would be terrifying.

    • Jul 31, 2017 at 12:55 pm
      • Jul 31, 2017 at 12:56 pm

        Nevermind … he resiged with Kazan. Not playing in the NHL.

        • Jul 31, 2017 at 2:36 pm

          The 23 year old lefty with the same name re-signed, the 21 year old righty, who I’m talking about and who’s shown in that highlight, has not re-signed yet.

    • Jul 31, 2017 at 2:44 pm

      Who is Tkachyov? I never heard of him.

    • Jul 31, 2017 at 2:53 pm

      Zucc on the 3rd line, are you crazy? You would put the best playmaker on the 3rd line, that is asinine.

      • Jul 31, 2017 at 3:23 pm

        On a good team, lines 1-3 should be interchangeable. I don’t view that as the “3rd line.” I envision all those lines getting the same amount of 5v5 ice time.

    • Jul 31, 2017 at 3:51 pm

      You have to be at least a little serious with your predictions of how the lines would be assemble. Zucc isn’t playing on the 3rd line and Vesey shouldn’t be in the top 6. It’s comical with how Hayes and JT get questioned in playing in the top 6 but 20 point something Vesey gets a legit scoring role on a team that us suppose to go far. The kid should develop his 2 way by being on the 3rd line and take a depth scoring role (we all know how AV rolls his lines). If he’s serious then he should be able to put up 35 points while maybe being a 20 goal scorer. I don’t even expect him to be on either of the PP’s this season.

      • Jul 31, 2017 at 4:10 pm

        I just said in my previous comment that I would give those 3 lines the same amount of ice time 5v5…to call that a “3rd line” is dumb, way too much skill. The idea is to put a possession driver like zucc with a guy who’s transitioning back to center and likely won’t win 50% of his faceoffs and a rookie who has a ton of skill but could use a vet on his line to lean on.

    • Jul 31, 2017 at 6:52 pm

      Very good mention DC. This has been an under the radar kind of story. Well done for bringing it up. While he will play in Russia this coming year, I think the Rangers are keeping him close in case he makes the jump to the NHL.

      The kid is a dynamo from what I understand and has elite skills.

  • Jul 31, 2017 at 8:41 am

    “Expected goals” are such a statistical abstraction–out of all of the fancy stats it’s the one that comes off as the most made-up. It legitimizes “coulda-woulda-shoulda” thinking about players to a large degree, versus actual production. Corsi & Fenwick slightly overrate the importance of shots & shot attempts to the overall game but are at least representative of on-ice events and indicative of in-game puck possession. Expected goals as a stat category are just too theoretical for me.

  • Jul 31, 2017 at 10:53 am

    There are so many variables in team sports, and hockey in particular,
    that attempts to analyze individual players thru the application of various fancy stats is at best an uncertain approach although so many now employ it. ‘Expected goals’ necessarily ignores so many other factors in making its observations that I have to take the stat with a few grains of salt. It isn’t completely useless, but those putting stock in it should be wary in relying upon it.

    • Jul 31, 2017 at 11:04 am

      “Remember: Talent and systems matter in all this, and it’s almost impossible to quantify. This is an exercise in using what we have and attempting to predict what may happen next year.”

      • Jul 31, 2017 at 2:57 pm

        Talk to Me next April Dave and I let you know how things worked out.

  • Jul 31, 2017 at 11:04 am

    Good stuff Rob. Interesting outlook into who may take a step back next year.

    • Jul 31, 2017 at 12:18 pm

      Thanks Dave and everyone else for reading. If you check with my twitter in a few hours I’m going to tweet out some other NYR players (at least Hayes and Zucc) just for reference.

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